Calais firefighter finds bone marrow donor

Posted Jan. 13, 2009, at 7:35 p.m.

CALAIS, Maine — Billy and Alicia Townsend were so excited when the hospital told them last week that he was in line for a bone marrow transplant that they forgot to ask questions.

Billy Townsend, 27, has acute lymphocytic leukemia, a type of blood cancer. In the fall of 2007 he learned he needed a bone marrow transplant, and he has been on a waiting list for a donor since then.

Townsend, who is a city firefighter, said the call from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Boston was like getting a delayed Christmas gift.

“My wife answered the phone,” he said Monday. “I was upstairs working in the attic. … I didn’t know what to really think at the time. It was a shock to the system because we got so many calls that they were still looking. So when they said, ‘We have what we need to give you a transplant,’ it was a big shock to the system.”

When Dana-Farber will schedule the procedure and how long Billy Townsend will be in Boston were not known Tuesday, but since that first call the couple have been in touch with the hospital and are waiting on the specifics.

Townsend was scheduled to undergo a biopsy on his bone marrow Thursday in Bangor to make sure the disease remains in remission.

Once that is confirmed, the couple will look toward their trip to Boston.

Townsend admitted the telephone call initially scared him because of what could happen if the transplant didn’t work. He also is concerned about being away from his family while undergoing the procedure and during the recovery period.

The couple have two children, a boy and a girl, 6 and 8 years old. They cried when they learned their father would have to be away, but Alicia Townsend said they have since accepted it.

And the news came at the right time. Townsend learned just recently that after two years of chemotherapy the treatments were scheduled to end in March.

“They didn’t have anything else for him; they said they were going to look for other protocols but there really wasn’t anything out there,” Alicia Townsend said. “So it is good that this came through now.”

The odds of the disease returning are high. “Last year, I went down and talked to my doctor,” he said. “If I didn’t have a transplant my chances were like 5 or 6 percent of it not coming back; if I have a transplant it was like 70 or 80 percent that it wouldn’t come back,” he said. “It don’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what you gotta do.”

And the affable Townsend wants to get back to work. “I am not one to sit around and watch TV,” he said.

He needs to work: He recently learned he had lost his health insurance.

On March 14, 2007, when Townsend was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. At the time, the family believed he was in remission, but that fall the disease again struck his body. He went through a series of radiation treatments. The disease was in remission until early 2008. He underwent further treatment, and the dis-ease went back into remission late last year.

In the meantime, the family was told Townsend was being put on the registry for a bone marrow transplant, for which he would need a bone marrow donor.

The Dana-Faber donor center is a member of the National Marrow Donor Program.

In the beginning, the family’s hopes were high, given that the registry lists more than 5 million possible donors. They thought a match would be found easily.

That didn’t happen.

At one point, Townsend was told a match had been found, but it turned out to be a disappointment.

That’s when the family decided to look for a match in their own backyard. They persuaded Dana-Farber to send a team to Calais in May 2008 to hold a bone marrow drive. More than 400 people volunteered.

Again, no match was found.

Then the call came on Thursday, Jan. 8.

If everything goes well, Townsend said, he should be back to work as a city firefighter in about a year.

It will be an expensive year for the couple with trips to Boston and all of the treatments.

Anyone who would like to donate to Townsend may do so by sending a check to his family at Martha and Dennis McIntyre, 14 Poole St., Calais 04619.

bdncalais@verizon.net

454-8228

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